New alcohol abuse prevention program shifts focus from substances to students

During a night of partying, empty beer cans accumulate in the home of a group of VCU students. Photo by Enza Marcy

Eduardo Acevedo, Contributing Writer

A group of VCU students party with their friends on a Thursday night in the Fan District of Richmond. Photo by Enza Marcy

Senior Jason Tsoi stood outside an apartment building in the Fan, making sure the doors behind him didn’t stay open too long, as the loud music made nearby windows shake.

“College is all about the parties,” said Tsoi, a criminal justice major, with a bottle in his hand.

As some students continue to spend their weekends going out to party and drink, a new research project at VCU and a grant worth more than half a million dollars may change the way the university assesses alcohol abuse.

Two researchers, Danielle Dick, director of the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, or COBE, and Joshua Langberg, associate dean for research at the College of Humanities and Sciences, have received $600,000 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in a three-year grant to research, develop and test an alcohol abuse prevention program. The program focuses on the underlying factors that cause college students to drink, instead of the current methods that focus on consumption and drinking safety.

“What we know is these current alcohol prevention programs show limited effectiveness,” Dick said. “All of the alcohol programming focuses only on current alcohol use.”

For the last decade and a half, this has been the case with most alcohol abuse prevention programs on American college campuses.

“It’s all about giving students feedback on how their drinking compares to other students,” Dick said, “getting them to think critically about their substance use and if it interferes with anything in their life.”

Environmental science major Mia Morrison said the university should do more with its alcohol abuse prevention programming.

“I think [prevention] should be more about how to stop these behaviors instead of these statistics that you really don’t get much from,” Morrison said.

Anna Disisto, a freshman, said a program focused on stopping substance abuse would be “much more helpful than programs telling you to simply not to drink.”

Dick and Langberg’s research will focus on predispositions students face based on their “externalizing” and “internalizing” genetic codes that wire our brains and influence the way we see the world.

“Externalizing refers to how we are all different in how much we seek out risk and how … impulsive we are,” Dick said. “The other side is the internalizing pathway … which relates to how we respond to stressful life events and how prone we are to anxiety.”

People who tend to internalize are more likely to use substances to cope, Dick said, while people who are more impulsive and externalize things use them “because it’s fun.”

“A lot of what contributes to who ends up developing problems with alcohol is not specific to alcohol at all,” said Dick, who is a professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics.

When people are unaware of personal underlying factors, such as impulsivity and tendency to take risks, they lose a key way of knowing if they are at a greater risk of abusing alcohol and other substances.

“If you are not cognizant of these traits and you allow them to get away from you, then they can lead to potential problems,” Dick said.

Some students still aren’t so hopeful that alcohol abuse prevention programs will get better.

Summer Natour, a freshman, worries that prevention programs won’t be able to target exclusively social drinkers.

“I think a lot of people drink because it’s socially acceptable when you’re at a party and you say, ‘Oh, my friends are drinking, maybe I should drink,’” Natour said. “It’s a lot harder to target with a study or a program if you only feel the need to drink when you’re with friends.”

Chemistry major Grant Hairston says the subject of alcohol and substance abuse is taboo on college campuses, and that limits the ability to prevent abuse.

“We’re young, if we want to do something, we’re going to do it,” Hairston said.

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